Friday 20 September 2019

Female-only university posts set to be challenged in courts

Gender inequality: Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor
Gender inequality: Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor

Katherine Donnelly and Luke Byrne

The Government is braced for legal challenges to its plan to fund women-only posts in universities.

But a solicitor who specialises in employment law has said the plan would likely stand up to any challenge under equality legislation.

"There may be an equality issue there. But they are allowed to have a bias towards female roles if there is specific policy there," said Claire McDermott, of the Flynn O'Driscoll law firm.

"What they're trying to do is address a gender imbalance in the work place."

Over the weekend, Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor announced plans to create women- only professorships.

It is understood that, initially, up to 10 posts will be funded, at professorial level, where salary scales start at between about €80,000 and €115,000.

"I am creating female-only professorial posts within our universities and institutes of technology," she said.

"This is just one of a myriad of initiatives that will address and improve on the paltry proportion of women in senior third-level positions," she said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Ms O'Connor will set out details of the extent of the Talent Initiative today when they launch the Gender Equality Action Plan for Higher Education Institutions.

Senior sources told the Irish Independent a legal challenge was "very likely".

Mr Varadkar said the action plan was the starting point to accelerate gender equality.

"We can't rely on others to change the status quo, we can't just wait for things to change over time. We need accelerators," he said.

Ms Mitchell O'Connor said her "clear and strong message is that we are making a decisive break with the past. Gender inequality has no place in higher education."

The number of women professors in third-level colleges is regarded as a key measure of equality and the minister said the target was for 40pc of professors in Ireland to be women by 2024. That would be a significant rise from 23pc in 2017.

She said, based on current practices, it could take more than 20 years to achieve 40pc gender balance at professor level, "an unacceptable scenario to which a decisive response is now imperative".

There has never been a female president of an Irish university and only two of the 14 institutes of technology have a female president.

"It sounds very positive and I'm very much in favour of what the minister is trying to do," said Joan Donegan, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers. However, she said a key element will be whether universities have a choice in implementing the plan.

Irish Independent

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